The inactivity of WBC featherweight titlist Gary Russell (31-1, 18 KO) since winning his belt with a four round thrashing of Jhonny Gonzalez in 2015 has never obscured the reality of what happens when the bell rings.
Russell, a 2008 US Olympian, wins.
It’s all Russell’s done in general as a professional outside a decision loss to Vasyl Lomachenko in 2014. The problem hasn’t been winning. Russell’s talent is unquestionable. When last seen, he still had two of the fastest hands in boxing, excellent feet, reflexes, ring intelligence, and respectable power.
What’s been missing is the lack of chances to win more. Six fights in seven years became fodder for social media scoffs. The last year in the life of Russell should quiet some that this time around. The loss of a brother and health ailments for his father remind that life happens outside the ring.
This Saturday on Showtime (9 PM EST), Russell gets to put aside the heaviest blows and just focus on something he’s better at than most of the people in the world. Maybe it will be a relief. Regardless, it will be good to see him back in the ring.
It’s hard to believe Russell is still only 33. That’s not young at featherweight, but it’s not as old as it used to be in boxing. Russell will be attempting his sixth title defense this weekend against undefeated 26-year old Mark Magsayo (23-0, 16 KO). Magsayo is ranked tenth by the Transnational Boxing Rankings and fourth by The Ring.
It will be Russell’s third such ranked opponent in his last four starts, including wins over Joseph Diaz, who went on to win a belt at Jr. lightweight, and Tugstsogt Nyambayar. The lone unranked opponent in that stretch, Kiko Martinez, was last seen winning the IBF featherweight belt with a knockout of Kid Galahad.
Magsayo is a talented battler and may surprise this weekend but most expect Russell to win. Assuming he does, what comes next for Russell?
It’s a question that still matters because Russell still has time to make it matter. Putting aside Martinez, whom Russell already stopped in five, the title scene at featherweight is occupied by Leo Santa Cruz (37-2-1, 19 KO, WBA) and Emanuel Navarrate (35-1, 29 KO, WBO). Number one in the WBC rankings is former Jr. featherweight titlist Rey Vargas (35-0, 22 KO).
Navarrete may not be an easy fight to make given the gulf between fighters affiliated with the PBC and Top Rank/ESPN. Santa Cruz returns to action next month for the first time since a 2020 loss to Gervonta Davis and Vargas resumed his career after an injury late last year.
Russell-Santa Cruz has been one of the most obvious fights under the PBC umbrella yet to occur. It’s been there for years and hasn’t happened for whatever reason.
It’s in stark contrast to PBC’s in-house round robins at welterweight, Jr. middleweight, and now Jr. featherweight. The last of those divisions could also matter where Russell is involved. Eventually, those Jr. featherweights are going to move four pounds north. Russell could still be there waiting.
Right now, Russell is 6-1 in title fights. If he simply put in two appearances a year for the next three years, that could be 12-1 sooner than later. Those might not be staggering numbers, but it’s nothing to scoff at either. Who Russell can get on the other side of the ring will decide how much substance anything else he does in his career will carry.
In 2022, Russell is a talented featherweight who won a belt. The right opponents could make him more than that.
Saturday is all Russell can handle for now and Magsayo will have his say. For now, it’s enough to note Russell still has plenty of time on his side to leave a statement on his time at the top.
Man in the Arena and Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure are addictive television…Joseph Parker saying he’d never fight Tyson Fury seems odd. Friends or not, if Fury were to beat Usyk and unify the division, getting a shot at an undisputed crown seems the sort of thing to change a mind. Be friends later…The great thing about pay-per-view boxing is you don’t have to pay or view. There is way too much boxing on TV to care about missing one here or there…Everyone whose name is being thrown around for George Kambosos has some merit to their case and none is particularly more deserving than another. George Kambosos earned the right to the best check available of several intriguing options and whoever doesn’t come correct there can get next.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.